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When a doctor of 16 years was posted as chief of the Health Department in the town of Ingapu, in Irrawaddy Division’s Henzada [Hinthada] District, he saw it as an opportunity to put into action a long-held plan.
“I always dreamt about a project to provide food to families at an affordable price, for no profit,” Dr Nanda Win told DVB.
Despite the national economic boom Burma has seen in the past few years, millions of the country’s citizens still live in poverty.
The UN’s World Food Programme says that three million people are considered to be ‘food poor’. Thirty-five percent of children under five have stunted growth, a sign of malnutrition, according to the World Health Organisation. In 2025, if current trends continue, that figure will only have fallen to 27.9 percent.
Inadequate nutrition in children can cause developmental problems as a result of vitamin deficiencies. For adults as well, a poor diet can contribute to a ‘poverty trap’, where the ability to work is affected by a lack of nutritious food, causing a downward spiral for whole families.
“I have seen a lot of rural patients with hypertension. My usual advice to them has been to avoid salty food, but they often tell me that ngapi [fermented fish paste] is pretty much the only thing they can afford to eat,” Nanda Win said.
A poor diet increases a vulnerability to infectious diseases, and can exacerbate underlying health problems. The ‘Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension’ initiative from the American National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute recommends minimising sodium intake and emphasises vegetable, fruits, whole grains, fish and vegetable oils – a wildly unattainable diet for those rural families Nanda Win had visited.
“One day, I went to a village unannounced to find out about the locals’ eating habits and saw that most of them, being poor families, had to prepare their daily meal with just a pot of ngapi chutney. I was very sad to see that. I wanted them to be able to eat more healthy and nutritious food, but knew they could not afford that with their income,” he told DVB.
“I told the hospital staff and their families about my plan – I would invest money and, while the hospital staff are at work, their families can cook the meals to sell to poor families at pretty much the cost price.”
“We sold rice and thesone kalahin [bean and mixed vegetable soup] for 200 kyat (US$0.20), rice with pork curry for 300 kyat, and rice with chicken curry for 500 kyat … The thesone kalahin has all six nutritional requirements for good health, and it is one of the favourite dishes of most Burmese. At first, we only prepared meals for 100 families each day and would always sell out within minutes,” he said.
A chef and two assistants prepare the dishes, before they are loaded on to rickshaws and transported to families around the town at around 4pm every day.
“Most of our customers are poor families from the outskirts of Ingapu. They are our dedicated customers. There are also some well-to-do customers, but we have explained that we have to prioritise the sales to the poor.”
Nanda Win’s scheme has proved so popular that they have already had to expand, and are looking to scale-up again in the near future.
“We have now expanded from one rickshaw to two. We are also looking to expand further more with up to three or four rickshaws,” he said.